Menahem Pressler, the 92-year old pianist, was at the Sheldonian on his annual Piano Festival visit on a sultry Wednesday evening, this time playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. It was unclear whether the fullish house - the upper gallery hearteningly crammed with concert goers below the age of 30 - had come out to see and hear Mr Pressler, a maestro in his seventh decade of public playing, or if just the name Mozart on the ticket was the draw. But the fact is that here was Pressler playing Mozart, and the audience prepared to revel in it.
To jump ahead, the second half of the programme was Haydn's London Symphony (No. 104) of 1795, and conductor Marios Papadopoulos was reminding people after the concert that his podium had stood on the very spot from which Haydn himself had conducted one of his earlier works, his Oxford Symphony, in 1791. The piece has a dramatic opening, with a solemn fortissimo fanfare, all instruments playing in unison, backed up by a poignant motif exhaled by the 1st violins, and then constantly repeated to reinforce the pathos. Mr Papadopoulos, directing without a score, took this steadily, perhaps mindful that Haydn's last symphonies are grander in scope and orchestration than anything he had written previously. The Andante with its stately measures was given full weight, as were the stop/start tempi of the Menuet and Trio, characteristic of this composer.
Mr Pressler is a full three years older than was the legendary Artur Rubinstein when poor eyesight forced him to put aside his performer's piano stool. Pressler was unsteady on his feet, at one point almost falling, and had to sit to take his sustained applause, but the quality of his playing seemed undimmed by the decades. Mozart composed this concerto when aged 30 and it was a favourite of his; the excellent programme noting the composer had said of the piece, in one of those little quotes from centuries past that banish fustiness in a trice:
"[It is] one of those pieces which I keep for myself or for a small circle of music-lovers and connoisseurs".
The ebullient Allegro led into the delicate Andante, Mr Pressler touching the right hand notes as if stroking a cherished Persian cat, dovetailing to perfection with flute and clarinet. The soloist, seeming delighted with his reception, gave us two Chopin Nocturnes in succession as an encore, the second apparently an afterthought since the piano had been prematurely closed and had to be re-opened. Marios Papadopoulos then delivered a quiet, emotional speech of thanks and announced the appointment of President for Life upon Mr Pressler.
"Many musicians have the knowledge," he told us, "but fewer have a strong desire to communicate it to others". Words that for sure apply as aptly to Mr Papadopoulos himself as to the subject of his remarks.